Looking Back: Mental Games I Played to Survive Wrongful Imprisonment

Jeffrey Deskovic speaking in Davis at an Annual Vanguard Event

By Jeffrey Deskovic

“Looking back” will feature reprints of articles that Jeff previously wrote while a columnist at The Westchester Guardian, which encompass topics that are applicable here in CA as well as across the country and not simply applicable to NY.

As readers of The Guardian know, beginning at age 17 and until I was 33, I served 16 years in prison for a Murder and Rape which I was innocent of. I had been convicted based upon a variety of misconduct including, for example, coerced, false confession, the fabrication of other evidence, and other prosecutorial misconduct, despite the fact that a DNA test showed that semen found in and on the victim did not match me and that hairs found on the victim didn’t either.

All of my appeals were denied; and, on top of that, once I finished my sentence minimum of 15 years, I was turned down for parole. I was ultimately exonerated because The Innocence Project took my case and persuaded the district attorney not to oppose more sophisticated DNA testing, which not only reaffirmed my innocence, but also showed the guilt of the real perpetrator, who subsequently confessed; and, who, in fact, had committed another Rape and Murder three and a half years after I was already in prison.

One of the questions I am frequently asked, in one form or another, is, “How did you keep it together mentally? I would have gone crazy.” The short, but true, answer I give involves my belief in God, along with the knowledge that nobody was coming to my rescue, and that if I was to be freed it would have to be through the recruiting of somebody that I didn’t yet know, who would champion my cause, as I had read had happened in some other wrongful conviction cases.

That person would somehow obtain the legal help that I needed to prove my innocence. In order to do that, I knew that I had to keep it together mentally. What I don’t mention to them, partly because it would take too long, and partly because I don’t think they might be interested, is precisely what mental gymnastics I had to go through, and what mental tricks I had to play on my own mind just to get by.

The purpose of this column is give the in-depth answer, so that people can understand just what it means to be wrongfully imprisoned. Although the focus of this column involves the mental element, things don’t happen in a vacuum, and so some basic understanding of the physical conditions in prison is needed in order to try to get a fuller understanding of why the mental defense mechanisms are needed in order to maintain one’s sanity. It is not simply the fact that one is incarcerated wrongfully, although that plays a big part in it. The conditions within the prison are also are factor. Lastly, this column, whether referring to prison conditions or mental self-defense mechanisms, is not meant to be comprehensive, or all-encompassing in every detail.

Conditions Within The Prison

Contrary to some propaganda which suggests that prisoners have it too easy, being in prison is horrible. It can best be described as a non-stop obstacle course in which other prisoners, guards, and staff, are all obstacles capable of derailing one from the goal of regaining freedom. Basic human rights and dignity are seen as unwarranted extravagances. Treating the prisoners with basic human decency is dispensed with so regularly that it is regarded as a big thing when it is not. In fact, there was no escape from the comprehensive abuse I absorbed as a youth in an adult maximum security prison.

Additionally, survival cannot to be taken for granted. There were stabbings and cuttings on a regular basis, and the possibility of violence permeated the atmosphere. Guards brought their personal problems to work with them, taking it out on the prisoners, often stirring them up to violence for their entertainment. Medical care was substandard and often given by bottom-of-the-barrel-caliber medical personnel who frequently issued Tylenol as the answer to everything.

Seeing a doctor could take anywhere from a week to several months. The food was bad, and sometimes the prison was unbearably hot while at other times very cold.

Nobody is saying that prison should be a nice place. However, I believe that every reasonable person would agree that all of the things I just mentioned are not morally acceptable. The punishment of incarceration is supposed to be the loss of one’s freedom, not the mistreatment and abuse that are part and parcel of everyday prison life. As I have stated before, people are sent to prison as punishment, they are not sent there to be punished.

Also, contrary to prison officials and various governmental propaganda, there is no real effort being made to rehabilitate the inmates. If there were, college education would still be available, as would current up-to-date vocational training which would equip prisoners to be job-ready upon release and thus make it less likely that they were reoffend. Therefore, any rehabilitation and bettering of one’s self that takes place happens despite the system, not because of it. It requires serious effort to avoid making one’s time in prison a total loss.

Mental Gymnastics

There was always more than one dynamic in play at any given moment. Often, a variety of defense mechanisms were going on simultaneously. Looking back, I can say that with everything going on, in many ways I did a lot of my “living” within my own mind. There was always a part of me that was aware of what was going on. My life was a living hell. I was constantly fighting to keep it together mentally, and having frequent battles with depression, frustration, loneliness, and suicidal ideation. There even reached a point where it was a struggle simply not to give up. I very nearly did not make it.

Living From Appeal To Appeal

As I began my incarceration, in my mind I was not serving the fifteen to life sentence the judge had given me, for that would be too horrible a prospect to wrap my mind around. Instead, I was simply serving a year or two until my appeal was decided, at which point I was sure that justice would be done and I would be cleared and released. That was not to be.

Every time an appeal was denied, I would simply repeat the process. I was denied seven different times. With each denial, the crash back down to earth was harder and harder. By the time my attorney told me that I was going home the next day, which was my eighth legal proceeding, I was afraid to hope anymore because of the pain, while simultaneously grudgingly holding onto a modicum of hope.

Normalization Of Madness

One of the things I used to protect myself was pretending that bizarre everyday things were in fact normal. I tried to blot the craziness out of my mind although there was always a part of me that realized what was really going on. The way that I thought about things, aided by the verbalization of the same sentiments by other prisoners, assisted me. So, rather than going to my morning assignment, I was “going to school” to obtain my GED. Rather than going to my afternoon assignment, at which they had varying pay grades of .20, .25, and .32 cents an hour out of which I was expected to purchase hygienic items, stationary, and food items, I was “going to work.”

Rather than referring to the security personnel as what they were, prison guards, they were “Corrections Officers.” Rather than the person in charge of the prison being referred to as “The Prison Warden,” he was instead called “The Superintendent.”

Sometimes the mental normalization process involved blocking out the crazy methods that the Department Of Corrections made us undergo in order to do actions that went by same name in the free world. For example, rather than acknowledging how crazy it was that I could only use the phone by calling collect, and that the people taking the calls would be charged an exhorbitant rate, I simply thought of it as ‘using the phone’. Instead of dwelling on how crazy it was that following a visit I would have to submit to a strip search and a visual inspection, I was instead “visiting with relatives.”

Having anywhere from seven to twenty three men, many of them naked, in the same immediate area as me, cleaning themselves, was thought of as “taking a shower.” When a program was piped through the facility intercom system through which the prisoners could listen via headphones, we were “listening to television,” as if that was how normal people utilized a television.

Familiarization With The Law Gave Solace

In response to the madness of being in a prison as the result of having been found guilty of a crime I was innocent of, while also taking in my surroundings which consisted of cell bars, concrete walls, a small area called a cell, barbed wire fences, being subjected to the schedule, control and command of the guards and prison officials, while also being largely stripped of the ability to decide what direction I wanted to take in life and even the ability to make everyday choices, I sought to learn more about the legal system, motivated by a desperation to understand what was happening to me, and how better to fight.

I went to the law library and read legal material relative to the issues that existed in my case. I looked up the cases that were cited in legal documents that were filed on my behalf in order to form an opinion on the strength of those arguments that my freedom had become inextricably tied to. I also immersed myself in wrongful conviction literature, seeking to learn more about the legal system while also looking for something that others had utilized successfully, and that I might emulate.

An additional psychological function of reading the material was that I used to vicariously celebrate other inmates having been cleared, imagining what the scene would look like as their friends, family, and the media would greet them outside the courtroom or the prison.

If only in fantasy, I would mentally leave for a few moments. But this euphoria would soon dissipate as the reality of my own circumstances set back in, and I would also feel frustrated because I felt that I, too, should be free. Feelings of hopelessness would set back in, and I would struggle to fight them.

After all of my appeals were exhausted in 2001, I faced the end of legal representation. At that point I began writing letters seeking assistance from anywhere. After a while, simply coming up with new places, or people to write to, became a tough challenge. In fact, there were periods of inactivity where no letters were written, and feelings of depression, despair, and hopelessness would overtake me and grow deeper. Then, when I would come up with a new name or place, and was able to write once more, the feeling that I was still fighting would help me fend off further depression.

Throwing Myself Into Things

One of the techniques that I used was to throw myself into different things with the hope of losing myself. By focusing on mental activity, and using most of my brain that way, I was able to slightly blunt the effects of everything. There were a variety of things I would ultimately throw myself into.


Up until the time that George Pataki arrived on the scene and decided that it was a good idea to cut out funding for college education of inmates, in 1995, college used to exist in the New York State prison system. Elmira, where I spent most of my sentence, had set aside a cell block in which only those prisoners who were participating in the college program were housed, along with a few who did maintenance and upkeep. The usual communicative barriers that exist amongst prisoners was somewhat lessened, as was some of the violence and the feeling of it in that atmosphere. Interestingly enough, that environment, assisted by the presence of desks, blackboards, and books, really helped me as I tried to pretend that I “was going to college.”


When reading fiction that had the same characters in it as other books, I would pretend, while I was reading, that I was visiting friends. In a way that I can’t fully explain, I would do the same thing when reading a book without the same characters, but written by the same author.

There was a saying in prison that “prison was a poor person’s university.” The proverb meant that people, free from some of the distractions of running the street and the usual hustle and bustle of life, suddenly had time to read. I was looking for an additional method of mental escape when I first heard of the saying. I began reading non-fiction books on such topics as self-help, relationships, and politics. I used to pretend that I was doing an independent study, and that this would be valuable, later on, to some employer as I began to get back on my feet.

Self Delusions

Chess: I not only threw myself into learning how to play chess by reading various chess books and going over various strategies on my chess board while I was in my cell, but when playing chess at recreation, I would pretend that, rather than being myself locked up in prison, I was a professional chess player participating in an important tournament that would be covered by the media and whose results would be known by the world.

Television: In 1998, Elmira allowed the prisoners to purchase black and white televisions for in-cell use. Because I was wrapped up into my legal work; reading books, and learning how to play chess, most of the time my television was turned off. Instead, I used to watch certain shows every week. I would pretend, when I was watching the shows, that I was visiting friends.

Sports: I became very good a basketball and ping pong by really throwing myself into it. When playing basketball, I would engage in an elaborate delusion that not only was I a professional basketball player, along with my teammates and the people we were playing against, but that the basketball court became an arena. The people watching, or waiting for the next game, became the crowd. The pickup games in prison became an important playoff series, and I would pretend that color commentary was being given by Marv Albert and John Andreas.

Pictures: I used to cut pictures out magazines of various nature scenes like beaches, oceans, forests, and waterfalls, and tape them up in the designated area of my cell wall where we were allowed to put pictures. Sometimes I would mentally travel to those places.

Jeffrey Deskovic, Esq, MA, is an internationally recognized wrongful conviction expert and founder of The Jeffrey Deskovic Foundation for Justice, which has freed 9 wrongfully convicted people and helped pass 3 laws aimed at preventing wrongful conviction. Jeff is an advisory board member of It Could Happen To You, which has chapters in CA, NY, and PA. He serves on the Global Advisory Council for Restorative Justice International, and is a sometimes co-host and co-producer of the show, “360 Degrees of Success.” Jeff was exonerated after 16 years in prison-from age 17-32- before DNA exonerated him and identified the actual perpetrator. A short documentary about his life is entitled “Conviction“, and episode 1 of his story in Virtual Reality is called, “Once Upon A Time In Peekskill“. Jeff has a Masters Degree from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with his thesis written on wrongful conviction causes and reforms needed to address them, and a law degree from the Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.  Jeff is now a practicing attorney.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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